sunnuntai 3. helmikuuta 2013

Progress in philosophy

We no longer believe in any clear pattern in the philosophy of history – we do not see it as an inevitable progression, where the ideas of one philosopher lead naturally to its overcoming by the next philosopher and finally perhaps to some Philosophy itself where all the problems of previous millenia have been solved. Science may go forward, but philosophy seems like a mere endless bickering over the very same questions as before.

The era of ancient philosophy I have studied in the previous texts was earlier taken as a clear example of such inevitable progression. Thus, we see Hegel putting all the pre-Socratics in a neat order, where every link adds some important philosophical concept to the development, placing Socrates in the middle with his addition of ethics and method of discussion and topping it all with the works of Plato and Aristotle encompassing all that has gone before.

Such tales of progression could be easily criticized: for instance, there's no clear line of influence leading from one pre-Socratic to another, because their live overlapped with one another and some of them lived indeed even to the times of Socrates. Furthermore, it is not clear that anyone living at the time of Plato and Aristotle would have considered their philosophy to be the ultimate solution to all the questions of previous philosophers. Indeed, there were many philosophical schools, like Cynics, that Hegel places before Plato and Aristotle, which were still live and well and would have contested Hegel's reasoning. It is only the later times that raised the status of the two masters – and it's impossible to tell, how justified this raising is, because we have no full works of their contemporary rivals.

Still, we might discern at least some lines of influence leading up to Plato and Aristotle – although they were not the only ends of these lines. I remarked already at the beginning of my studies that the Ionians begun by stating theories based on studies of nature: theories concerning the constitution of world, its generation and possible future destruction and the constitution of the worldly things. Such studies were probably continued by a number of persons, although such empirical studies were not part of any profession in those days. We can discern features of such studies in some of the pre-Socratics and especially in stories recounting their lives. Plato confronted such empirical information in his Timaeus, alhtough he was clearly skeptical of its certainty. Finally Aristotle collected lot of this ”empirical science” and probably made also personal contributions, especially in his studies of animals. Because works of Aristotle were the first extant works containing this empirical treasure trove, he was often considered to have actually started many of the empirical sciences.

It is much harder to determine whether there were any development of religious type. I have suggested that several of the pre-Socratics were actively interested of religious issues: certainly Pythagoras and Xenophanes, possibly even Heracleitus – we may perhaps discern some religious strands even in Parmenidian idea of the unity behind everything. Most influential religious notion was still the idea of world as on the whole good and wisely governed: Anaxagoras thought there was a reason governing everything and Plato based his whole philosophy on supreme idea of goodness. Even Aristotle held on to this idea, when he noted that all existing things tried to imitate, as best as they could, the perfect being or God living in eternal bliss.

Empirical findings and religious ideas seem somewhat extrinsic to philosophy itself, but there were already a number of essentially philosophical questions. The eldest of these was probably the Parmenidian challenge: can we allow the existence of motion and multiplicity? This question was probably discussed by Empedocles, Anaxagoras and atomists, and it was definitely on the agenda of Plato and Aristotle. The common assumption of all these philosophers was that Eleatic school was wrong and there really was motion and multiplicity, and even the basic answer was same – there is some stability, but this still allows for the variability of some issues.

Study of nature began with Ionians, interest in religious issues originated with Pythagorians and metaphysical questions started with Eleatics. It was common in ancient times to ascribe the invention of ethics to Socrates, which is true only partially. Certainly there were people interested in the Socratic question: how should we live well, both individually and collectively? Indeed, the seven wise men of Greek history were supposedly wise just because they knew answers to these questions. In imitation of these wise men, sophists named themselves also ”wise men”, but at least some of them appeared to understood the required wisdom in the sense of a capacity to find means for required goals.

Socrates noted that before determining means, one should at first determine what one should aim at and take as one's goal. Furthermore, he took as his explicit task to find out what goals really deserved to be goals, while as far as we know, his predecessors in ethical issues were content just to proclaim what is good. Just like after Parmenidian establishment of metaphysics, no single line of development captivated the mind's of people. Still, the question itself connected various ethical doctrines, and it became in some circles the most important question of them all. Indeed, Plato at least begun by trying to find solutions for moral problems, even if answering these problems meant discussing also metaphysics. Aristotle forms an interesting exception, as ethics forms with him only a secondary topic and the true wisdom is to be found in a mystical contemplation of the origin and archetype of goodness.

The one thing were there has been evident development is methodology. Unfortunately, most of the earliest philosophers left no record as to how they arrived to theories they presented. Still, we might find interest in arguments at least starting from the Eleatic school. By the time of sophists, such argumentation had been dressed in ornate decoration and flowery rhetoric – the development of rhetoric was probably influenced by a need to master public speeches in city councils and courts. While rhetorical speeches tried to convince passive listeners, Socrates raised the listener into a bit more active role by making him a partner in discussion, although the true control was still in the hands of the clever interrogator. Plato generalized then this style of arguing into a proper methodology for seeking truth. He also distinguished this dialectical method clearly from mere rhetoric: it had more in common with mathematical argumentation than convincing people in courts. Aristotle then completed this development by noting that certain figures of argumentation or syllogisms worked always so that one had no choice but to accept their conclusion if one just accepted their premisses  He could thus envision the possibility of presenting human knowledge in a style, where statements expressing the essence of something led to further truths through valid deductions.

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